Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Dark Side of NIMBYism

Nimbyism is an interesting concept. NIMBY is short for Not In My Back-Yard. A couple weeks ago I talked about how opposition against freeway expansions in the 1960s and 1970s by communities helped to save inner-city neighbourhoods. NIMBY in the name of self-preservation is an admirable goal, or so it seems to me.

Nimby has a less pleasant face though. Nimby is an expression of popular democracy, and it is the actions of the people affecting the actions of government. It proves useful because politicians and bureaucrats can be death to disenfranchised and marginalized groups, particularly groups that are taken for granted, or ignored by the political process. However, it also means that decisions that have no real negative impact on a community, but are unpopular can be stopped.

The issue which has been given the shorthand “the Ground Zero Mosque” is representative, in a way, of this idea. The Park 51 Islamic community centre aside, the issue has drawn a great deal of attention to the plights of similar cases around the United States. According to media reports, mosques (actual ones, not community centres) have faced major opposition in Tennessee, Wisconsin and California. While I haven’t taken the time to explore each issue in depth I get the distinct impression that regardless of the local particulars there is a segment of the population that says that one mosque is one mosque too many.

Briefly looking at the issue of the proposed community centre in Lower Manhattan, I watched an episode of Hardball with Chris Mathews from August 23rd, and he raised an interesting point. How far away must the mosque be to be acceptable? The question gets to the heart of the matter. If you believe there is an inherent right to build the centre in the First Amendment, which most do, then the question is a matter of details. The building would be 2 blocks away, should it be 5? Or 10? Or 12, such as an existing mosque?

Most people in the United States would say that a mosque has a right to be built, but if you ask them do they want one built down the street, in their backyard, they would probably be less comfortable. The source of the discomfort is the problem, very obviously, but the idea of supporting something in abstract but not in concrete causes us a great deal of trouble.

We see this everywhere. Nimby advocates fight issues that would benefit their communities as a whole potentially if it interferes with their local existence or is a perceived threat. If too many people say “Not in my backyard!” soon it’s everyone’s backyard and there’s nowhere to make necessary changes. Change is necessary, even if it is uncomfortable.

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